Black, chaotic, all hell broke loose.
“Hurry up, quick, the western worm is going to destroy the Phnom Penh soon. Comrades, your house is in danger! Quick! If you want to live, walk fast!”, the popular music on the radio was embed by the yellings and the gunblazings. After each round of rifle fire, people push and shove one another in a panicked frenzy trying to evacuate the city.
I watched the all-black soldiers with a long gun on their back forced the citizens to leave their home from the balcony of my house. The U.S will bomb the capital soon, that was what they told us. A thick shadow was clearly seen on my Pa and Ma’s faces. That was when I knew we, too, need to leave our house.
I ran downstair and went outside to find my 5-years-old sister, Loung. I found her on the street, looking around her surroundings, lost. I called out to her and quickened my pace back home, the place that soon will turn into dust.
“Don’t worry, son. We will be back in three days, just three days.”, my Pa reassured me. At least, that was what he hoped. We all hoped. Hoped that we were not deceived.
We grabbed everything we could and climbed into our truck leaving our house behind. Young and old, the well and the sick, businessmen and beggars, were all ordered at gunpoint onto the streets and highways leading into the countryside. Roads are crammed with people on foot, carrying whatever possessions they can salvage.
After traveling a few kilometer away from the capital, we got off our truck as ordered by a gunman and joined the pedestrian refugees.
For three days and two night, we walked and walked under the burning sun, took a few break when needed to, and continued the walk again. The mountain of things we were carrying became as light as air after being examined by the soldiers. They took almost everything, not even my Pa’s watched was left.
Slowly and systematically the Khmer Rouge took the color out of everybody’s lives. To start with color, and then slowly pull it back as a palette was what we tried to do. When we settled in a place, where we were told to, the soldiers asked us to build our new house. We dyed all our clothes to black. And, gradually, the only colors left were the red, black, and charcoal of the Khmer Rouge set against the backdrop of the rainy season and the monsoon skies of Cambodia.
This was just the start of this miserable so-called “utopia” created the government we trusted.
Black, gloomy, hopeless, that was all we could think of.
No families, no sentiment, no expressions of love or grief, no medicines, no hospitals, no schools, no books, no learning, no holidays, no music, no song, no post, no money – only work and death was legal. Every single person across the rice field were in plain black top and bottom paired with the red scarf even looked like death.
Everyone was divided into work groups and separated from their family. There were about 200 other children in my work group, and we slept in long bamboo shacks with the girls on one side and the boys on the other. They told us that we “volunteered” to work fifteen hours or more a day in the rain or in the moonlight with no holidays. We worked from sunrise to sunset, weeding gardens and chasing birds out of rice fields, yet we were forbidden to eat what we grew. To take anything without the government’s permission was a crime against the revolution. How I wish we have enough power to chase this nightmare out of our country.
My two older brothers were sent to the labour camp. Later, my oldest sister, who was sent to work in a far away camp, died of illness. Ma and Loung were allowed to visit her for the last time, but all they could do was sending her off.
Lucky her. She could escape this harsh reality now. I wanted to commit suicide but I couldn’t. If I did, I would be labeled “the enemy” because I dared to show my unhappiness with their regime. My death would be followed by my family’s death because they were the family of the enemy. My greatest fear was not my death, but how much suffering I had to go through before they killed me.
“Come kids, I have something for you.”, Pa called us in a low voice. He grabbed the torch and a metal plate. Quick and soundlessly, he cooked the grasshoppers he took out of his pocket. When it was done, we started eating it. I shared one grasshoppers with Ma and let loung have a whole to herself as the guilt was eating me alive. I should not have hit her just because she ate the rice we reserved. She must have been really starving. Being forced to survive on a condensed-milk can of rice porridge every two days was not her fault. Hungers have numbed our spirit. It is as if we have lost all our energy for life.
“Is it delicious, my children? Eat up.”, I smiled at Pa who whispered and pulled a leg of the tiny insect and plopped it into my mouth.
“Let’s have grilled chicken when all of this ends, alright? Be tough, loves. Just do whatever they told you to, and-” , Pa put a finger over his lips signaling us to stay still and silent as he heard foot step outside. If we ever get caught, we will be executed for going against their rules. We sighed in harmony when the footsteps was gone.
“What would happen to our cats at home?”, Loung whispered to me as she licked her meal.
“Well, someone is probably having them for dinner by now.”, I replied and patted her head gently. A gust of cold wind brushed against my bare skin. When Pa noticed my shiverings, he rubbed his warm hand against my bare shoulder. Smile. That was all we could do to boost each other’s strength.
Little did we knew, that night was the last night we could spend with Pa. The cracks kept running through my heart everytime his face popped up in my head.
He was taken away by a few gunman and never returned. We all knew that right in the moment they addressed his name, but no one dares to say it out loud for it will shatter our illusion of hope.
“Bite your lip, greet your teeth, my son. Stay strong for our family.”, before he took his last leave with a sorrowful look on his face, he left me these final words. It was these words that kept me standing up despite the burning walls and shattering concrete.
Black, lonely, empty.
The day after my father’s disappearance, Ma sent us away. It was time that we had to detach ourselves from the tree. She could not bare to watch her children die one at a time. Now that they had taken dad, our deaths will follow. His cover must have been blown. Hiding our city lives, the shakes emerged every time they checked on us. We were afraid of who we were. We were proud of our family and our roots, but the gun barrel will whip us in shape if we defied.
Not letting a tear fell out, I hugged Ma, who tries to hide, but the cloudy mourn on her face could not be masked. This was the last time I sensed her tender touch and breathe.
The three of us, Loung, Chou and I, walked away from our second house on a pairs of dark pants and a dark shirt, the kind the Khmer Rouge made us wear. We parted our journey at a spot in the forest where the statue of Buddhist without a head was found collapsed, but no shattered pieces detected. We were told that we had to make up a story so people would not be suspicious. We would tell them that we were orphans and had no roof to rest under, which later became true, so they would take pity on us.
My two sisters took the left path while I took the left one. I crossed the river and walked all night, to a distant village in another sector, barefoot, since no one had shoes. The plan worked and I was taken in and fed, and put into another work camp.
The new camp was the training ground of Khmer rouge soldier where the kids are Bombarded with propaganda preaching the wonderful act of the government. Shielding my passionate hate, my anger, my strong disapproval of their regime, standing alone on the soil that I no longer feel that I belonged to it, I did everything as ordered, never had I ever denied nor rested before the sun, ate mice and bugs if needed to. I’d rather be perished from starvation and overwork than pushed into deep wells and ponds and suffocating to death. My skin had now grown thicker and could withstand all the pain.
Every night, before going to sleep dirty and hungry, I prayed silently for my family’s reunion, for the freedom of our nation, for peace. At least, this little spark of hope that the prayers brought to me kept me going even when my happiness had been scared away. “When will this living hell come to an end?”, surely this question was lingering around in everyone’s mind, but none was released from the lips.
That night, when I laid down on a pitch black hammock with my arms on my forehead ignoring the mosquitoes that were flying around aiming for my blood, something happened all over again. The things that the nation had grown used to it. The things that kept us awake no matter how exhausted we were.
Black, Booming, Waking the dead.
The cackle of the machine-gun in the pill box burst into life. Those who had gone to sleep and those who still have not finished their tasks yet were all awakened and alarmed. The ghostly wind that hovered around was beaten by the bombs. People was running for their lives, some with babies in their arms. Hazy, frenzy, loud, the field and the camp were all turning into ashes and cinders, that fell beneath our feet.
I ran and ran with no direction. Everywhere was dangerous. The bomb flew too fast before my eyes. I did not know where was safe, which way should I go until I saw the back of a man who I thought was my father. My eyes lit up with joy. I went running up to him and cried, “Pa, Pa!”, only to be disappointed and depressed when he turned around. I ran through the jungle and across the border, avoiding the landmines, praying for life, in a scene tinted a hellish, otherworldly blue, earthly “black and blood”.
In the following morning, we were freed. The Vietnamese invasion happened. For the first time in forever, I let my tears to fall freely. Our century-old enemy invaded, and won over Khmer Rouge. Our lives were saved.
Each highway was filled with refugees. We were refugees of our own country. With our skinny bodies, bloated stomachs, and hollow eyes, we carried our few possessions and looked for our separated family members. I could barely tell the difference between my family and others. Fortunately, I was able to find my two sisters. And finally, we reunited with our teenage brothers who were sent to the labor camp. Our finger clasped around each other naturally as if chain was never broken. We shared each other about our stories. But, none of us mentioned about those beloved members we had lost. We joined the corpse-like bodies and walked out of the misery hand in hand under the clear blue sky.
It was devastating to witness the destruction of my homeland that had occurred in only four years. Buddhist temples were turned into prisons. Statues of Buddha and artwork were vandalized. Schools were turned into Khmer Rouge headquarters where people were interrogated, tortured, killed, and buried. School yards were turned into killing fields. Old marketplaces were empty. Books were burned. Factories were left to rust. Plantations were without tending and bore no fruit. We were timid and lost. We had to be silent. We did not only lose our identities, but we lost our pride, our senses, our religion, our loved ones, our souls, ourselves. One old man said, “It takes a river of ink to write our stories.”.